Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Please Welcome Our New Algae Overlords

Dr. Robert Hebner has pioneered a method of extracting oil from algae.

Algae. It’s smelly, but a new study from the University of Texas at Austin says it could be a significant source of energy. A team of researchers found that, theoretically, it’s possible algae could produce 500 times more energy than it takes to grow it.

That’s an important number, because the efficiency of fuel depends on how much energy it takes to produce it. Oil and gas, for instance, creates 30 to 40 times as much energy as it takes to produce (i.e. drill) them. “But it’s getting harder and harder to get fossil fuels out of the ground,” Robert Hebner, a professor in the Cockrell School of Engineering and director of the Center for Electromechanics, said in a release accompanying the report. “With algae, the theoretical maximum is extremely positive.”

But don’t get too excited about algae yet. Another study from the same group at the University, emphasized that this level of efficiency is still theoretical. Currently, algae produces only one-five hundredth the amount of energy that it takes to grow it.

Why is algae attractive in the first place? For one, it’s a renewable, carbon-neutral resource. And it can be harvested all year. “Algae can also be used for fertilizers, food, pharmaceuticals and more, but researchers must first figure out how to mass-produce the green source inexpensively.”

More from the Cockrell School of Engineering:

“The research team also studied the university’s algae growth facility at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus to identify all of the energy inputs to a real process, such as using electricity to run algae pumps and energy for chemical processing and water transport. Using this information and working with the City of Austin, they showed that combining algae growth with a sewage treatment facility is one approach to getting a positive energy return with existing technology. Algae get nutrients from phosphorus and nitrogen — chemical elements that are abundant in water treatment plants and must be removed from wastewater during treatment processing.

By combining the two processes, the system produced 1 ½ times more energy than was needed to grow algae.”

The University boasts of having the “largest and most diverse algae collection in the world,” and has paired with several startups to research the economics and feasibility of algae as a fuel.

Further Reading: Tiny Algae Could Be a Big Source of Power


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